Home > Parenting Blogs, Religion, Spirituality > Pro Religion or Pro Choice?

Pro Religion or Pro Choice?

I grew up with no religion. I grew up in Tito’s Yugoslavia of the seventies and eighties marked by the typical attributes of that era. A red scarf around my neck and a blue cap with a red star badge on my head, which were supposed to be delivered to me in a special ceremony where I would swear to be Tito’s pioneer (something like the First Communion or Confirmation). Unfortunately, I never made it to the ceremony. I had mumps on one side, but I was feeling better the day before the ceremony and the plan was that I was going to attend it the following day. But that evening I started feeling pain on the other side of my head, which meant more mumps, and I never made it to the ceremony. Nonetheless, the first day I was back in school, my teacher gave me the scarf and the hat and I took them home with pride.

I was seven then. I used the scarf and the cap along with a dark blue skirt and a white shirt plentifully in the upcoming years. My mother would “pre-tie” my scarf if she was not going to be at home when I would be leaving to go to an event where I needed to wear the scarf and the hat (my mother wanted to make sure my scarf looked perfect).

I wore my pioneer “uniform” on all sorts of occasions. Waiting for Tito’s Blue Train (a literally blue train that took Tito all around Yugoslavia and beyond) to go through my town so I and hundreds of other kids could wave to him in a minute or two how long it took for the train to slowly go through the train station (while my lordosis-ridden back hurt even then).  Or waiting at the town square for hours for a few people to carry through the town the torch (something like an Olympic torch) that was going to be carried further, through the rest of the country, to be delivered to Tito on his birthday, in Belgrade, in a mind-blowing massive celebration that included thousands of performers. Or participating in many shows that our school organized for every single national holiday (sometimes I sang in a choir, sometimes I recited a poem about Tito or the Partisans’ heroic fighting in the Second World War, sometimes I read an essay I wrote about Tito). And yes, we wrote essays about Tito around every single holiday. I sometimes wonder how I never ran out of ideas, but I didn’t (I even won an award for two or three essays I wrote about Tito and participated in two special pioneer trips as a reward) . After all, you didn’t really have to say much in these essays, you simply had to describe how much you admired Tito, in a highly appreciated wordy flowery style – the wordier, the better. One time I tried to use this style of writing when I was a student at Beaver College, my teacher said she had no idea what I was saying and asked me to just say what I meant. At some point I started wondering how this flowery style even evolved. Maybe it was easier to crowd a sentence with strings of adjectives and multiple metaphors in a Slavic language than it would be in English. Maybe it was easier to incorporate subverted messages into this style of writing, if anyone wanted to do that. Maybe we were simply trained to beat around the bush and avoid saying what we meant. I don’t know.

Many times I wonder if this ordeal was better or worse than being expected to go to church every single Sunday, like my husband was. I don’t think I even fully understood the concept of religion until my mid to late teens. When I lived in Libya, I knew that Islam was a big part of Libyan culture. I occasionally saw practicing Muslims pray on the street, but I never thought much about my religion – . If I ever walked into a church, that was with my parents, when we travelled, to look at frescos and mosaics. For purely artistic reasons. I admired the pictures of saints, but I never asked many questions. And if I did, I wonder how my parents would have responded. They were not members of the Communist Party (they were way too honest and apolitical for anyone to officially recommend them, which was, I believe, required at the time), but they were a product of the post-Second-World-War times when few city people went to church and celebrated religious holidays. My father was a physician, a lover of mathematics, a lover of science and a lover of chess. He didn’t like to deal with things that were not exact. He laughed at any mention of God and church, and over the years I figured out the perfect way to play with (read: irritate) him: to read him a few prayers and hymns from some church calendar that we happened to somehow always have in the back of a kitchen cabinet. For years I defined my father as a straightforward atheist until he was on his deathbed. As a physician, he knew he was dying (although I didn’t), and I can’t even pinpoint what exactly made me think that maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t a complete atheist. All people are good, he kept repeating the last time I saw him, and I knew that was what he believed all his life, when he was wordlessly getting up in the middle of the night and leaving within minutes to go perform some emergency surgery. I always knew, he loved people, he cared about people, all people, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, he was a perfect Christian all his life. And what he was saying, the fact that he was saying it, he, a man of few words, made me somehow think that something changed in him.

My mother I have called an agnostic since that word entered my vocabulary. She always planned not to eat meat and animal products on Good Fridays, but always ended up forgetting about it and eating an  omelet first thing in the morning. She was the one who probably went through the effort of getting that church calendar we always had in the house. And she refused to sew on Sundays and religious holidays. But that was the extent of her “religiousness.”

I grew up not even knowing what Christmas was. Really. A family friend once told me not to take my “New Year” tree apart until mid-January (she didn’t explain, but I now know that her idea was to keep the tree until after the Orthodox Christmas and New Year). I had proclaimed myself to be a non-believer until my late teens. But secretly I believed in God. My version of God. A vague, ethereal  God. Loving God. Accepting God. And I prayed. Sometimes I prayed while my parents were fighting. And I always prayed after they finished their fights.  I prayed for them never to fight again knowing that was not in the realm of possibility. Sometimes I even knelt down on the floor. I kept the palms of my hands against each other, and that somehow comforted me.

I don’t know when was the first time I admitted to others that I actually believed in God. My God. That I needed God (although not religion). I think I was already an adolescent. It was after the breakdown of Yugoslavia, when people started going to church again and celebrating religious holidays. Some of my friends who grew up with a little more religion in their lives than I did started inviting me to go to church. Occasionally I went, but then I started backing off. I preferred to do it my way, to stop by while on my way to somewhere, or on the way back from somewhere, for a few minutes, when the liturgy was not in progress, when it was quiet.

I do have some attachment to Orthodox Christianity. That is not a religious attachment, or philosophical.  It’s mostly emotional and cultural. It’s part of my Serbianhood.  The Bible is still just a collection of stories that I read and reread when I was studying literature. They helped me understand literary references and I enjoyed reading them. My God is my God. I need my God to remain nameless, ethereal, accessible to me.

My husband is culturally Roman Catholic, but fundamentally an atheist. He grew up in a strongly Catholic household, went to church every Sunday until he was maybe sixteen. After that he was allowed to go to church by himself, and that’s when he started to stop going to church. Today he professes to be Catholic culturally and he knows The Bible in the way I don’t. But, fundamentally he is an atheist. And, he seems to have one of the characteristics of a “recovering Catholic” (the term I first heard from some man I dated years ago): Anger. He is angry about quite a few things related to the Catholic church, including some of the teachings, the damaging concept of original sin, the values imposed, hypocrisy, the abusing priests, and who knows what else. And I understand why. If someone forced me to sit on a bench for an hour or more every Sunday morning of the first sixteen years of my life and listen to something that never felt right for me, I would have been angry too. Furious. And I would rebel. It’s only natural.

We have a two-year-old son whom we are raising with no religion. Someone once equaled this with “no values.” I was appalled. And a little sad. No values? Do we really need a religion to teach us values? Of course, that’s one way, but is it really the only way?

Would religion, a specific religion, help my son along the way? Keep him grounded? The answer is, I don’t know. I cannot know. My son is two. I am curious to find out who he is and I am trying to find out – I might analyze his personality and his temperament at times and conclude, Oh, he is really intense and really persistent! But overall, I still don’t know who he is and who he is going to become. My husband and I definitely try to embed certain values in him, those that we think are important: hard work and perseverance; internal motivation for work rather than external; honesty; self-reliance; problem-solving; care about the planet; and a few others. But we don’t want to mold him. After all, we want him to understand it’s his job to find out who he is and develop himself into a complete human being.

I don’t know whether my son is going to need God or not. My hope is that he will be OK either way. If he doesn’t need God, that’s fine by me. If he does need some sort of open God, I hope he will discover it. And if he turns out to need a religion, I’ll acknowledge his feelings of incompleteness and encourage him to find a religion (and hope he will not allow any religion to control his basic values).

In the meantime, I am expecting questions such as: What is God? Does he wear diapers? Does he like to eat broccoli? Does he love me? And I hope I’ll be able to handle them.

And my husband and I are already dealing with the practical issues such as, for example, Christmas celebrations. We like getting and decorating  a tree, but we don’t call it a Christmas tree. We go to my in-laws’ house for Christmas Eve, and we enjoy spending time with the family. We go through the gift-giving thing, and this is something that we have decided to simply accept as gift-giving. It’s not a bad thing to once in a while give and get presents.

And we continue to hear passive, passive-aggressive, and direct comments, and we try to keep in mind that these are not serious offenses, just simple boundary violations. Luckily, we are not children anymore, we have resilience and a sense of self.

  1. Jen
    November 8, 2011 at 10:23 am

    Another good post, I am really enjoying getting to know your blog.

    I’m another recovering Catholic, but I am past being angry (sometimes!), although that was a long process. I am sure it is harder to be an atheist in the US where every politician has to say “God Bless You” and even the money has a reference to God. Here our big problems are doorknockers (including Buddhists! who knew?)

    We are raising our kids without religion but definitely with values. We too hear comments good and bad about that, but we do about everything else too! Who knows if this is the right decision, I guess we’ll find out when we get the therapy bills from our kids.

    • November 9, 2011 at 12:46 am

      Thank you very much! Likewise, we just deal with the comments, raise our kid in the way that feels right to us, and know it will take some years before we find out how right our way was for our son. And you are making a great point about the US – politics and God being so enmeshed – something I find disturbing in so many ways.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: